William Schuman’s “Judith”: How a Ballet Score Helped Save an Orchestra

February 16, 2022

Like many of his contemporaries, composer William Schuman harbored a love for American jazz and popular music. In fact, before pursuing composition studies in his twenties, it is estimated that he wrote nearly 150 popular songs. Though Schuman became a highly regarded and influential composer, jazz and popular music remained integral elements of his eclectic style. In addition to eight symphonies and scores of chamber and choral works, Schuman composed several operas and music for the ballet.

Included in the Milken Archive is Schuman’s ballet score for Martha Graham’s Judith, based on the biblical heroine who seduces and beheads an Assyrian military leader. In 1949 the Louisville Philharmonic Society commissioned Graham, who personally asked Schuman to provide the music, and the work premiered there the following year. The performance featured Graham dancing in front of a scrim that concealed the orchestra, which was seated on the stage with her. The response to Judith was so enthusiastic that it is said to have saved the then-struggling orchestra. Schuman’s score is a single movement, but is divided into five distinct sections based on key turning points in the heroine's story.

Read More: William Schuman's Judith »

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